Green Neighbours: Beech trees

Beech Bark

I have often done plants and wildlife but not, I think, trees. Today a tree, a very important tree ecologically for the Greater Toronto Bioregion, and one of my favourites, but as I am impossible at picking favourites in anything that’s not saying much.

Beech trees.

They are, first of all, easy to identify in their mature stages due to their lovely, smooth grey bark, upon which you will often find the engraved initials of teenaged couples that surely lasted for much less time than the engraving will. According to this lovely website, those engravings will first grow and eventually be swallowed by the growth of the tree, at last long outliving the person who carved them.

They are, second of all, an obviously integral component of the sugar maple-beech climax ecosystem that once covered southern Ontario, and is still the most common forest type in the area. They keep each other in check. Did you know that? Beech seedlings don’t grow well under beech trees, but do grow under maples; maple seedlings don’t grow well under maple trees, but do grow under beech. According to this University of Toronto page, this is a 500-year cycle maintained by extraordinarily long-lived trees. Beech trees won’t even produce seeds until they are 40 (and here a girl gets in trouble if she hasn’t had a baby by 35). Hence the lovely, perfect balance of a sugar maple-beech climax forest ecosystem. And hence why, when I run or walk or bike in the East Don Parkland, I am always finding so many beech and sugar maple trees (and manitoba maples too, but that another day).

And thirdly, they have magnificent widely-spreading branches, gorgeous glossy slender red-brown buds that split and fan out their folded leaves like paper fortunes. They are beautiful trees. Definitely hug-worthy.

They like shade and well-drained soil, often near water; their dense roots and dark shade make an imposing barrier to any grasses, plants or other trees trying to gain a foothold beneath it. Thank goodness our trilliums and trout lilies like shade too.

“Beech” and “book” apparently have the same root word because smooth grey beech bark was once commonly used for writing on. I have only internet sources to verify this but it seems to be a common misconception if it is one; so, yet another reason to love the beech tree. It gave us books!

That seems much too utilitarian a note to end this on, so I’ll leave you with the beech nuts–their seeds, edible to a wide variety of wildlife and humans. For harvesting and preparation instructions, read Beechnuts, A Delightful Woodland Snack.

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